Meeting in Cambodia

I’ve worked in a variety of very multicultural teams. It is always interesting to see the dynamics of how it works (or doesn’t work). I’m also doing a module on multicultural leadership, which has given some interesting insights about what perhaps has been going on when things fell apart. Being one of the few Cambodian speakers in one team team, I managed to gain some interesting views from both sides: the Cambodian staff and the foreign staff. One fascinating situation that seemed to cause problems were staff meetings. I heard both these phrases said quite a few times in different ways:

  • “Cambodians never offer any ideas! They show no initiative.”
  • “The foreigners never listen to our ideas. Our opinions don’t matter.”

It was hard to know what to do about this and find the root of the problem. Looking at some cultural aspects has been really helpful. Hopefully, if you’ve heard either of these or even said them yourself, you will find this helpful.

Purpose of meetings

Some of the problems arise because different cultures have different expectations of what staff meetings should look like. These are some questions that perhaps can be asked:

  • Are meetings for discussion and the mutual sharing of ideas, resources and knowledge?
  • Are meetings for the dissemination of information and sharing of instructions and directives from those in leadership?
  • Should discussion of ideas happen outside of a meeting context (i.e. before)?
  • Does each individual have a responsibility to share their own opinions?
  • Does one person have the responsibility to share the opinions of the group (i.e. a team leader represents their team)?
  • Do attendees have a responsibility to participate?
  • Do attendees have a responsibility to listen and accept decisions?
  • Can the meeting leader be interrupted and corrected?
  • Should mistakes, problems or corrections be addressed in another context?

When you realise that different cultures may say “yes” and “no” (or even “sometimes”) to different questions, you start to see where these problems can arise. People in the same meeting may arrive with different expectations of what should happen. The answer to these questions will be affected by certain cultural values. Therefore, these decision will have been made already by their cultural context, rather than perhaps attempts to create a certain organisational culture. So it helps to be aware of dynamics and factors that might influence expectations.

High power and low power distance

All cultures have ideas about power and how power and authority should be structured. Hofstede uses a scale he calls the Power Distance Index:

This dimension expresses the degree to which the less powerful members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally. The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among people.

Hofstede Insights

There are some interesting aspects of that definition and I could discuss it word by word. Don’t worry; I won’t. However, I will explain it. High power distance contexts accept that there is a large gap in power between leaders and subordinates. Japan and South Korea, for example, have a high power distance. Low power distance is that the distance between leaders and subordinates is minimised (sometimes to the point of almost becoming non-existent). The US and Netherlands will fit in here.

Meyers defines it in terms of egalitarian (low power distance) and hierarchical (high power distance). It’s quite easy for those from an egalitarian culture to assume that it’s the best, most honouring option. (But, as my lecturer said, you are enacting a power imbalance if you are force those from a hierarchical culture to become ‘egalitarian’. Therefore, you might not be as egalitarian as you originally thought.)

Whichever terms you use or prefer, these concepts will impact how meetings are conducted. Low power distance contexts will probably have a more discussion based meeting, where opinions are offered, decisions are discussed and challenged and ideas are proposed. In a high power distance it is the leaders’ responsibility to come up with ideas, make plans and decide which option is best for all. If the meeting leader is from a hierarchical context, the participants might find their approach too autocratic and bossy. If the meeting leader is from an egalitarian context, the participants who come from hierarchical contexts might wonder why the leader is abdicating responsibility and asking them to do their job by asking for their ideas.

Individualism vs. collectivism

I’ve written about this before, but it has an implication in meeting contexts, too. It also interplays as well with the power distance aspect of culture. In some cultures there will be representative for a particular group. This may be a middle-man between those in higher and lower status positions. Or it could just be someone with a relationship between groups.

Individualists will hear one person offering an opinion and only think “oh, only one person thinks this.” However, if this person is from a collectivistic context, they may actually be speaking on behalf of a whole group. This would be more likely in where there is a clear hierarchy. Those lower in the hierarchy may not feel able to speak directly to someone much higher than them. They may need to rely on someone in-between them and the boss to speak on their behalf. Therefore, it is important to know whether the opinion is just theirs or if it is shared by others.

A comparison of cultures

These are potential out-workings of how these cultural differences might appear in meetings. These are hypothetical cultures, although may resonate with cultures you have worked with. Cambodia is definitely more like culture 2, but it would be good to get a Cambodian’s perspective on this rather than make assumptions. But this is just to show you how there could be highly conflicting expectations.

Culture 1: egalitarian and individualisticCulture 2: hierarchical and collectivistic
Meetings can be a time to discuss ideas, plans and share opinions.Meetings are a time for leaders to give instructions and information.
It is fine to interrupt the leader to ask clarifying questions or make suggestions.The leader’s responsibility is to make the decisions and to think of all the factors.
All members can participate.You should listen to those senior to you.
You should voice your own concerns, ideas and feelings.It is a middle manager’s responsibility to share the consensus of their team to the boss.
Public discussion is preferred so others it is clear if others agree or not.Discussion should not happen in an open format, to avoid appearing critical.

Let’s go one step further, and see how these expectations could play out.

Leader (culture 1)Response of staff (culture 2)Consequences
Asks for suggestions from the staff.Staff reticent to share, as they are not willing to take responsibility for decisions made.Leader assumes that the staff don’t care, are unimaginative or show no initiative. Staff feel as if they are put under undue pressure.
Task not communicated something clearly.Staff do not ask for clarifications, especially in a public setting, and therefore do not do the task correctly.Leader frustrated that no one asked for clarification, or, worse, thinks their staff is incompetent.
Leads meeting as a workshop or with interactive activities to foster participation.Staff do not get involved and wait for the ‘correct answer’.Leader frustrated at the stubbornness or unwillingness of the staff. Staff feel under pressure to perform in front of their leader.
Leader asks whether the staff are in agreement.The representative of the group voices concern and disagreement.The leader interprets it as only one member of staff having concerns whilst the rest are happy with it. The staff feel like they are not heard.
Leader criticises suggestion from staff.The staff member will be mortified. The rest of the staff will be embarrassed about the situation.Relationship with the leader will be potentially damaged with all staff from culture 2. Staff will be even more reluctant to share in future.

Again, these are only hypothetical scenarios, that involve two hypothetical cultures. Cambodians might not necessarily think in this way. Also, we must remember that all Cambodians are also individuals. They aren’t exact carbon copies of each other, so some might behave more ‘typically Cambodian’ than others and they will do this in different ways. But you can perhaps see how the two opposing sides of the story that I mentioned at the start of the post could come about. Therefore, leaders need to be aware of the cultural nuances of what they are dealing with and the implications it might have in different situations. Also, it’s a helpful reminder that in every situation, you will have a set of expectations and these expectations may be different to those around you.

Sources

Happy Birthday parties

I’ve lived in Cambodia over four years now, and I lived with a Cambodian family as well as knowing them well beforehand. There are things that still surprise me about cultural differences between the two countries. You don’t think that they would or could be different, until you encounter it. One example of this is children’s birthday parties.

(Again, I’d like to mention that although I have done a single, lonely module on anthropology, I’m not an anthropologist by any means. There have been no ethics forms, no massive amounts of reading about ceremonies, parties and gift exchange in Cambodia, but maybe next time. Also, these experiences are from my experiences with one extended family.)

U.K.

I’d like to first start with a vignette of a British child’s birthday party from a middle class background. This may be similar to the ones in your country. They will usually be on the weekend, during the day. As the children get older, the parties will probably get later. Children will be invited, mainly classmates and friends. Cousins, if they live nearby and are of a similar age may also be invited. It might be in the child’s house, but other venues are possible: adventure playgrounds, family orientated restaurants. Most of the guests will be children. The parents may stay to help supervise but sometimes they are dropped off. There will be relatives and maybe close friends, but there may be an expectation to help set up the event. All guests will bring gifts and birthday cards.

The party will be semistructured. It could be themed, with children (and eager adults) dressing up, with decorations. Decorations are usually balloons and streamers, or other props in-keeping with the theme. There will be games, such as pass the parcel, musical chairs or musical statues. There will also time for food. Food is often prepared by the family, and may consist of sandwiches, pizza, fruit slices, juice, and other snacks. Then there is a birthday cake. Again, this is often personalised and in-keeping with the theme or the child’s preferences.

The party will have a clear finish and start time. Parents will pick their child up at the allotted time.

As you will see, these aspects all all very different to what happens in Cambodia.

Cambodia

Birthday parties are relatively new here. Many older Cambodians don’t actually remember their date of birth. They will have an official date of birth (the date on their ID), but this may be different from the day they were actually born. Younger children will probably know accurately.

In Cambodia, birthday parties are in the evening. It is probably the evening of the birthday, but may also be on a weekend. There is usually an unspoken time that the guests arrive and no clear end time. On one birthday of Vitou’s children (perhaps the first I had attended), I got a frustrated phone call because I hadn’t arrived yet. I was apparently the guest of honour and the children had not been able to have their cake because I had yet to come. I however, had assumed that the party would have happened during the day (because of the nature of UK parties). I had been invited, but because I hadn’t heard anything else about start or end times, I thought that maybe they chose to go to the province to have it with Vitou’s family there. I was wrong. Fortunately, I lived close by and was there in less than 15 minutes.

The guests are predominantly relatives and therefore adults (grandparents, aunties, uncles, cousins). Neighbours may join as well. The children there will be a range of ages, depending on the age of the neighbours’ children and the age of the cousins. In parties I have been to, this has been a range from 2-13 years old. Not everyone will bring gifts. If you bring gifts, you are possibly highlighting yourself as a patron of the family. The gift exchange is therefore as much about the status of giver as it is about the recipient. It speaks about the relationship between the two parties. I think by bringing gifts to birthday parties, I have accidentally been announcing myself as both fictive kin and someone with an economic and material responsibility for the wellbeing of the family.

There is very little structure to the parties. The children are expected to occupy themselves and play together. The older cousins will be responsible for the youngest children. The children will eat separately to the adults (at a separate table or on the floor). The men and women will also be divided in some way. The men will probably have a table to themselves, where they will eat and drink beer. The women will perhaps join that table if there is space, but sit together (women one side, men the other). Or they will sit at another table or on the floor or a low table. The guests (or one of the groups) will probably be sitting outside. If neighbours pass by, they will be asked to join. At the last party we went to, Kristi got shepherded away to sit at another table and was on her own for a while, until the children joined her. I sat awkwardly quiet on the men’s table. At some parties, Kristi and I cause confusion to the seating arrangement as we will sit together, thus breaking the male-female split. Either that, or we become the dividing line between the two and all the women sit next to Kristi and all the men sit on my side.

The food may be curry soup, or grilled meat or seafood. There will, of course, be rice. There will be multiple options including some greens to eat. The food will be put at the middle of the table and you take what you like. The drink of choice will usually be cans of beer and you will drink it with ice. There will also be coca cola, or some other fizzy drink. Other alcohol may include wine and flavoured vodka drinks, but this will probably be as a result of some foreigner influencing drink habits. (I have introduced Pimms (pronounced peem by my Khmer friends), and pina colada (piner COLaDAA) and Bailey’s (belly) to Vitou’s family.) Drinking the beer is somewhat ritualised. The men will check the status of the other guests’ beer cans and provide new ones when they are getting low. When you drink, everyone clinks glasses or beer cans together. These will happen most times someone takes a drink. Therefore, all the guests at one table are drinking in unison.

Cheers! This will happen multiple times. Notice the condensation forming on our glasses.

There will probably be a birthday cake. The cakes in Cambodia are pretty generic. There is a light sponge and a cream frosting (with the consistency of whipped cream). You will pick out from a number of colours and there will be decorations (sweets, fruit, sugar decorations, plastic decorations, including fake money, cars, etc.). The name of the birthday boy or girl will be written on the cake or the board along with the date. (See pictures – these are all for adults, but the children’s cakes will be similar due to the fact there is very little distinction between the two types of parties.) This will be the time that all the guests and the groups merge, to watch the blowing out of the candle. There will probably be confetti canons that shoot glitter or even tiny $100 bills, and silly spray.

This part of the party may also involve a speech. The speech will not necessarily be about whoever they are celebrating but to thank a guest of honour. (That has been me in the past and it was really awkward for me.)

One of the main features of Khmer parties is loud music. There will also probably be karaoke. The adults will participate in this, the children probably will still be off doing their own thing. Occasionally there might be dancing and the children join in as well.

This will go on into the night (the children will probably still be awake all this time – even the youngest ones). Then, in an unspoken instant, the party seems to end; everything will be packed up and the children whisked off to bed.

Ask a Missionary: My work

Back in January 2020, you know, when the pandemic was just becoming a thing, I wrote a blogpost called Ask a Missionary. There were various topics. So far in this series I have written about

I also wrote about a week in my life, which is on a similar theme. Today, I’ll be writing about my work.

What do you do?

Currently, I am the deputy leader of the Cambodian team of my organisation. Next month, I become the leader. The position of leader is elected, not appointed. Therefore, everyone on the team chose for me to do it. The role means that I make a lot of decisions, write a lot of emails and maintain communication between various teams of my organisation across the world. I do have a group that meets regularly to make decisions (I don’t actually make most of the decisions on my own). We are the council. So, often my role will be arranging the meetings for that.

I also have other roles, which is the new members supervisor and the language learner supervisor. (These roles often merge, but the language learner supervisor occasionally oversees the language goals of those that aren’t new members.) When you first arrive on the team in Cambodia, you are a new member for the first two years. You go through an orientation process which involves learning about Khmer, Cambodian culture, team life here, and the work you will be doing. I oversee that orientation process. I’m also child protection coordinator.

However, I have to have a visa platform for me to stay in the country. Currently, this is with a Khmer language school. There, I teach English, write curriculums, train the staff. This takes up about a day to two days of my week.

Another part of my role is life-long learning. I’m currently doing an MA! The topics I have so far covered are

  • Mission reflection (how to be a reflective practitioner and frameworks for reflection)
  • Theological Foundations for Mission (this looks at theology from across the world, including some of the theological problems of mission. I love the global perspective and the focus on voices from the margins.)
  • Biblical Foundations for Mission (the theme of mission through the Bible).
  • Anthropological Foundations for Mission (how we can use anthropology and its theories as a tool for effective mission).

I am currently studying research strategies for my dissertation, leadership in mission and will study mission strategies.

Where do you work?

When I work at LEC (the Khmer school), it’s in a small building in Tuol Tompong to the south of the city. I also have meetings with the new members and other colleagues in cafés. But mostly, I work from home on my dining room table.

How do you get to work? What is that journey like?

The walk downstairs is arduous. I quite enjoy the ride to the school, even though it can be about 45 minutes in hot traffic. I will often, at the moment, catch a tuk tuk as it gives me a moment to collect my thoughts. The motorbike ride can be a bit stressful, but I do actually enjoy it. It can be really hot and sweaty too. Next month, the school will move and be a 5 minute drive from my house, which is great.

Tell me about your average day.

I did. Read my weekly routine here.

Describe your place of work.

LEC is a multiple story house in a quiet road near the Russian Market. There are three classrooms, but sometimes we’ll study on the roof. There is an open area at the front. It is a little bit old at now. However, (like I said) the school will be moving soon.

My front room us pretty typical for a Khmer house.

What is your favourite thing about your job?

I love working with Khmer people. The staff at LEC are incredibly warm and friendly. They are some of my favourite people.

Some of my favourite people at our house for dinner.

Also, I really believe that the work LEC is important. They teach missionaries Khmer, so we can explain the gospel in the Cambodian language in a way that Cambodians would understand. Through these lessons, you also learn so much about Khmer culture, interactions and Cambodian life. So, it’s a real blessing that I get to help them do this as effectively as I can. The fact that I can share my classroom experience and insights from going through the language and culture learning process myself is a real blessing and a joy.

What is your biggest frustration about your job?

Not working with Khmer people enough. It was a bit of a sacrifice to take on the role of leader, as I knew it would reduce the potential contact time with Khmer people. I hope that this is just an initial stage and the work settles down so I can get on with interacting with Khmer people a bit more.

What is a daily challenge you face in your job?

Because I have so many roles, my head is constantly swimming with different things that need doing. This is quite confusing and exhausting at times.

Do you enjoy your work, overall?

Yes, I really enjoy working with the Khmer. I also love sharing my love for Cambodia with the new members.

How does your work make you feel about yourself?

I think fairly confident. The MA has definitely helped as I don’t feel quite so out of my depth. Or more that it’s important to feel out of your depth, because God is doing it all anyway.

Do you work with locals, foreigners, Christians, non-Christians? Do you like this set up?

I’ve mentioned the local/foreigner aspect already. Most of my team are foreigners: Europeans, Africans, other Asians. The make up of the team changes massively year on year. Previously we had a lot of Brazilians, now we don’t. We had mostly Europeans for a while, but by the end of this year there’ll be four. The team will have mostly Koreans for a few years, but this may change to Indians. We’re hoping to get a few Australians too! The team is quite small, so even an additional couple changes the dynamics.

My team and the teachers at LEC love Jesus, which is great. I would perhaps like to work with more non-Christian Khmer, to get out of my bubble.

Who are your colleagues?

My colleagues come from a wide range of countries and backgrounds. Some are teachers, social workers, business people. There’s also a range of ages. They’re all pretty great.

What positive relationships do you have at your job?

I would say all the relationships I have with my colleagues are great. This isn’t just because it’s public; it’s true! That’s due to God and not us, though.

What relational problems do you have at your job?

There are some cross-cultural misunderstandings. There will be some communication issues that need clarification. However, most of us are experienced now in working cross-culturally and we enjoy discovering more about one another’s cultures.

COVID-19 obviously impacted how we could relate to one another. During 2021, many of us felt disconnected from the team and the organisation. I think, however, it shows how much we value the sense of connection we have with one another.

How can you resolve any problems or issues you are facing?

In the event of conflict, we do have a process:

  • prayer
  • reflect on your own role in the conflict
  • seek reconciliation
  • if that doesn’t happen, seek mediation.

There are other more drastic steps. However, I’ve yet to see them happen. We do make an effort to learn about cultures and potential sources of conflict. This can help with understanding and seeing why people behaved as they did. We need to remember that different cultures emphasise different cultural values, so seeing it in the light of a positive cultural value can be helpful.

We are trying to rebuild the sense of connection after COVID-19. I feel quite connected now, but I think we still need to work a bit at it. But it’s something, I expect, many are experiencing world wide.

How can I pray for you as you do your work?

Wisdom and sensitivity whilst working cross-culturally.

How can I pray for where you work and those you work with?

LEC was, as most business have been, affected by the pandemic. So pray that they can recover from that. Pray for wisdom for those I work with, they often deal with complex decisions on a daily basis. Pray that the great relationships in the team continue.

A week in the life…

I imagine most of you don’t actually really know what I do week in, week out. You just see my photos on instagram and think I spend my life going around snapping away. Well, first, there is no such thing really as a typical week. Cambodian culture has a high tolerance for ambiguity, whereas Western cultures tend not to. So, it means that schedules rarely go to schedule. This is usually fine, but when I’m stressed I don’t like it so much. We’ve not really managed to get a routine established, mainly because life changes one week to the next. So all these things are really flexible. Some days we don’t do everything (or anything) on the list. I’ve also written ‘between’ so it means it can happen any time during that period. It doesn’t usually take the whole slot.

You’ll notice that at the moment, I don’t actually interact with Khmer people a whole lot. I’m in what’s known as a support ministry role. (If you want more details of what my job titles are, then let me know.) I basically sit at my computer and type away at things to enable people to do the day-to-day contact. I free them up from doing emails, visa admin, and other tasks. I also use my teacher skills to create language learning plans: these are pretty detailed and can be up to ten pages long. It’s also a stage of life thing; my MA (click here to see the course overview) is taking a lot of time away from getting out and about. The MA is really valuable though and is already having a positive impact on my work here in Cambodia.

Monday

Studying Khmer – here I was reading the Bible.
  • Between 5:30 am and 6:30 am to get up to pray, read the Bible, have breakfast and a coffee.
  • Between 7 am and 8:30 am, Kristi and I pray together.
  • 10 am, I meet with a Korean colleague to pray for my team.
  • 1 pm until 2 pm, I sometimes join the Bible study at LEC.
  • 2 pm until 4 pm I study Khmer. (I haven’t had lessons this month because I’m busy with about four MA essays.)
  • 5:30 pm until 7 pm I teach English. (This is very flexible. This is the scheduled time. Sometimes it happens at 4, sometimes it happens at 5:30. It depends who is coming and when people are available.)
Teaching English at LEC

Tuesday

  • Get up early to pray, read the Bible and then Kristi and I join one another again to pray.
  • 10 am, have a phone call with a colleague in Kampot.
  • The rest of the day is admin and emails. There is a surprising amount of this in my roles. I might be emailing people in UK, Korea, Brazil, Australia, Germany, anywhere. A lot of the emails are with the new members in my team that I supervise. I could also be writing the Christian Khmer curriculum for LEC, rewriting the Pre-Arrival Orientation Guide for potential new members coming, dealing with any issues that the current new members are having, helping organise visas for people, creating a resource library for new members, writing a language learning plan, arranging cultural trips and education opportunities…
  • 3 pm, I will start picking up Vitou’s twins from school and helping them with their homework.
  • 7 pm until 8:30 pm, I will have a Zoom Bible study and prayer with my Khmer church. (Yes, it’s all in Khmer.) Or I will have a monthly Zoom meeting with the new members in my team, going through their orientation process.

Wednesday

  • Usually, get up early. But I didn’t manage it this week. Also, if I get up early but have things scheduled every evening, I end up burning the candle at both ends. I was confused at the end of last year why I was always so tired and getting run down a lot. So, I’ve decided that a few days a week it is okay to rest in the mornings a bit.
  • Do MA work. Wednesday mornings are usually spent reading for my MA. Or I might be actually writing an essay.
  • 2 pm I have another meeting on Zoom. (Yes, I have quite a few meetings it seems.)
  • Then I will follow up on the meeting in the afternoon and do admin tasks.
  • 9:30 pm until 10:30 pm I have an online lecture about my MA dissertation.

Thursday

  • Again, this week I didn’t manage to get up early. I don’t think I ended up going to bed until about midnight, because I was thinking about my MA dissertation.
  • Mid-morning and afternoon, I am going through my to do list (see above). This maybe admin work and more follow ups on emails. (I often find emails lead to emails.) Or it could be reading for my MA.
  • 6 pm – 9 pm I am in another online lecture. This semester, I am studying a module about leadership.

Friday

Lunch with some of the LEC teachers
  • Let’s see if I manage to get up early again.
  • Morning Khmer lessons (again not happening this month due to the volume of MA work).
  • At 11 until 1 pm I am having lunch with the teachers at my Khmer school, LEC.
  • From 1 until 2 pm, I am leading a training session for the LEC teachers, in Khmer.
  • Two Fridays a month, I meet with the Phnom Penh team in my organisation for fellowship from 4 until 5:30 pm and then we often eat together.

Saturday

  • Rest, sort out the house, do some more MA work or go out and about.

Sunday

Waiting for church to start. You can see me explaining what happens and who is who to one of my team mates. I had to translate and I actually managed it! You’ll notice, it’s outside. I haven’t been to a service yet when it’s raining but I can imagine it’s impossible to hear anything.
  • Morning is church. We alternate between an English-speaking Anglican church in the centre of Phnom Penh and a Khmer-speaking church down the road.
  • Rest.

Cambodia: demographics

In 2019, I wrote a post called A Million Questions, where I listed around 100 questions about a country. Having done a module on anthropology now, I have more. But these can still serve as a helpful overview. These answers are not from rigorous academic research (unless otherwise stated), but rather from anecdotal experience. Read up on the basics of the country here.

Even after answering all the questions on the original post, you’ll still only jave a superficial understanding of the country. I know I will never have a Cambodian’s understanding of Cambodia. Much of my understanding may be academic; for Cambodians it will be intuitive and visceral. (It’s the same as knowing, “British people find queuing important” but never having that instinctive pull to a queue like a moth to a flame, or the physical sensation of your heart rising when someone tries to skip the queue.)

What is the population of the country?

17,304,363 (July 2021 estimate by the CIA: The World Factbook). This makes it the 70th most populous country in the world. Other estimates put it in the 16 million range.

How many people live in urban areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?

Only 23.4% of the population live in cities. (Britannica.com) That’s about 3.9 million people.

What are the largest urban areas in the country? What are their populations?

Phnom Penh is the largest city within Cambodia, with over 1.2 million residents. (Britannica.com) Some sources suggest it is over 2 million now. (Both Bangkok and Ho Chi Minh City have populations over 8 million, so you can see how small Phnom Penh is in comparison.) Another large urban area is Takmao, which is directly south of Phnom Penh and makes up the wider greater Phnom Penh urban area. Other cities or towns include Siem Reap, Sihanoukville and Battambang.

A typical Phnom Penh scene

How many people live in rural areas? What is that as a percentage of the overall population?

The majority of Cambodians live in rural areas and villages (76.6%). These villages often comprise of houses on stilts and be surrounded by rice paddies and field.

How does the country’s population compare to the rest of the region?

Cambodia is a very small country compared to its neighbours and other countries in South East Asia. Vietnam has a population of around 103 million and Thailand has almost 70 million. (CIA World Factbook)

What are the different people groups in the country?

Cambodia is largely homogenous. The people groups are Khmer (95.4%), Cham (2.4%), Chinese (1.5%). There’s quite a large Vietnamese population. There are many hill tribes and other ethnic minorities, including the Brao, Chong, Rade, Jarai, Kaco, Khaonh, Kraol, Kravet, Kui, Mel, Mong, Pear, Sa’och, Samre, Somray, Stieng, Suoy, T’moan, Tampuan. (CIA World Factbook and Joshua Project)

Where can they be found?

A house in a floating village in Cambodia

The Vietnamese often live on waterways, such as the Tonle Sap lake, in floating villages. The Cham villages mostly run along the banks of waterways, such as the Mekong. I heard this was because they don’t eat pork so they have a largely fish-based diet. The tribal groups often live on the edges of the country and are often inaccessible.

What is the main people group and what is their attitude towards the others?

The dominant group is the Khmer. Relations with the Cham are generally harmonious but there are occasional stories in the news where a Cham person gets murdered for apparently using black magic. The relationship with the Chinese has become more difficult in recent years despite the fact the Chinese has poured a vast amount of resources into the country. The Vietnamese are generally disliked by the Khmer (Britannica.com).

Which people groups have the economic power and political power in the country?

The Sino-Khmer (Khmer with Chinese ancestry) hold most the power within the country. Chinese people have a lot of influence within the economy, especially Phnom Penh.

What are the different people groups’ attitudes towards the others?

The Vietnamese tend to distrust the Khmer. (Britannica.com)

Which people groups live alongside one another?

In Phnom Penh and other urban sites, there is some integration of the people groups. The Chinese and Sino-Khmer live within urban areas. However, it seems that many of the groups live in their own villages. For instance, the Cham often will have their own villages with a mosque.

What type of interactions are there between the groups (business, social, religious, etc.)?

Many of the market sellers and tradespeople in Phnom Penh are Chinese or Sino-Khmer. Phnom Penh actually has the largest Chinese language school outside of Cambodia. It is located very near Orussey Market, which has many Chinese stall holders. The Cham also mainly seem to have limited interactions and only on a transactional level. The Cham children often attend Muslim schools near the mosque.

What are the sources of conflict between the people groups?

The Chinese are often seen as having a disproportionate amount of control over the economy, especially in cities such as Sihanoukville. The Vietnamese are often marginalised, with temporary communities, and they are forced to move on when areas are used for development. This can be the case with the Cham, especially those living nearer to Phnom Penh.

What stereotypes have each group formed other the other?

Britannica.com comments on the distrust between Khmer and Vietnamese. Anecdotally, I can attest to some of the tensions. One of my friends said how Vietnamese are always loud. Khmer women sometimes say that the Vietnamese women are very beautiful, but are less complimentary about their morals.

The Cham are sometimes accused of being evil and cursing Khmer villagers.

What are the obvious shibboleths (cultural markers) of each group?

The housing of Chinese and Sino-Khmer in Phnom Penh can be obvious. They will often have red banners with gold Chinese characters over their doorways and sometimes even red Chinese lanterns. Their shrines are often indoors and are different to the shrines found in Khmer homes.

The Cham dress quite differently to Cambodians: the women cover their hair and the men (especially older men) may wear flat-topped hats and long shirts.

What are the main differences between the groups?

The Khmer are Buddhist, the Cham are Muslim. The hill tribes often practise folk religions. The different groups also speak different languages too.

What is the average age of the country?

Due to the genocide and recent economic developments, Cambodia has a very young population. About three-fifths of the population is under 30. (Britannica.com)

What is the average life expectancy of the country?

69.82 years (44th in Asia). It has been massively improving over recent decades.

How does the life expectancy vary regionally, between urban and rural areas, and between people groups?

Due to a lack of access to health care in rural areas, I would imagine their life expectancy to be somewhat lower. However, traffic accidents, pollution and work condition may play a part in lowering life expectancy in urban areas, so I would have to do more research.

The lack of health care resources would significantly effect the ethnic minority groups.

What is the population growth of the country?

It is currently at about 1.4%.

What are the consequences of this growth?

Urban areas have grown extremely rapidly. The population is also very young. However, urban families seem to be having fewer children than previous generations.

Many young people entering the labour market find it hard due to lack of opportunities and qualifications. There have also been shifts in rural-urban populations as the young people are trying to find jobs in the cities. COVID-19 will have only exaccerbated these situations.

2021 a reflection

I’ve already written a summary of 2021. That post goes through some of the major events that happened and also has a lot of pretty pictures. It has been quite the year! This one is the long read version. This post is more about the nitty-gritty, heart, mind and soul stuff.

Joys and blessings

This year had quite a lot of big moments. I got engaged and then I got married. These were also massive joys (also, in their own ways massive challenges, but I’ll get onto that). The fact that both things managed to happen in such a year of uncertainty was a massive blessing. My relationship with Kristi and the massive amounts of laughter that it generally involves has been very important this year. Also, how our families blessed us in our decision to get married here without them. Both sets of parents, before us even having decided on a Cambodian wedding, contacted us and said that they would accepting of that decision were we to choose it. (I say accepting, because I acknowledge it did take some personal sacrifice to say that. They’d have rather us been able to do it with them there, but they understood why we would make that choice.) This meant the eventual decision to do it that way was much easier.

I think relationships have been some of the biggest sources of joy (and challenges) this year. There have been so many times of joy that have involved hospitality, trips, joining with others. Of course, Vitou and his family have been massive contributors, as well as the LEC teachers. We had some really beautiful contributions to our wedding. We asked friends and family around the world to send in videos and prayers to be shown during the service. I knew there were a few tears watching them! The amount of people that watched our wedding and sent in photos and interacted was a massive encouragement too. We felt truly blessed by the fact that people were joining from all across the world to watch Kristi and I start our lives together. We need to recognise Dawne and Taara. Dawne was surrogate mom to Kristi during the wedding preparations. I know Dawne’s heart broke for Kristi not being able to have her mom here, but also it also broke for Kristi’s mom. Dawne, I know, was a blessing to them both. Kristi had someone to help and guide her. Kristi’s mom could be reassured that someone was there for Kristi. Dawne and Taara joined forces to help decorate our house beautifully for the wedding. So many people commented on how beautiful it was.

I’ve also enjoyed getting to know Kristi’s family. We’ve never actually met in person so everything is online. Kristi’s parents and brother are hilarious, so I can see where her sense of humour fits in.

Just living in Cambodia is a blessing. At least once a week, but usually more (sometimes once a day), Kristi and I will say together, “We live in Cambodia.” It’s been four and a half years of living here and I’m still shocked and surprised about the fact I get to live here. I just love taking it all in.

Finding our first marital home that ticked all the boxes was amazing. Kristi and I wrote a list of what we would like in the house: two bedrooms (or space to escape from each other), air con in the main bedroom, close to a scenic outdoor space, safe area, some appliances, practical for inviting people over, relatively cheap. God gave us everything on our list and more. When we thought ‘close to a scenic outdoor space’ we thought maybe a 10-20 minute drive. It’s a 30 second walk to the lake. We actually have two rooms with air con. We have enough space to comfortably host small gatherings. For the meantime, and our first year together, it’s pretty much perfect.

Other notable blessings include

  • honeymoon in Kratie
  • seeing Irrawaddy dolphins in the wild
  • going to the Zoo
  • getting an oven
  • fitting out our house
  • having a full-sized oven where we can cook food, bake and even roast turkeys
  • Cambodia week challenge
  • the beauty of Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem

Challenges

I would overall say that 2021 was a good year for us. But that was not without difficulties; we’re still in the midst of a pandemic for a start. However, I know that my challenges have not been comparable to some of the tragic circumstances many have faced as a result of COVID-19.

I returned to Cambodia in January, and at that point the country was still COVID-19 free. Towards the end of February, the first community outbreak had been announced. A group of Chinese, let’s say, entertainers had been flown in privately to Phnom Penh. It was arranged that they would leave the hotel quarantine before the two weeks. Because of the nature of their entertainment, social distancing was impossible to maintain, and it seems they entertained quite a few rich businessmen. Unfortunately, this was how the outbreak started. By April, the first lockdown was imposed.

Now, if you thought your government’s announcements were last minute, you might be shocked at how Cambodia does it. The first city-wide lockdown was announced after 11pm, to start at midnight the same night. Many people went to bed and woke up in a lockdown. (This was the same for when they started using just neighbourhood lock-downs. Many people woke up to find their street had been blocked off in the night and there were police at the end of it.) So, these lockdowns were somewhat challenging in normal circumstances.

I would say I have never experienced real culture shock, but the lockdown was the closest to it. I’d also never been homesick until that time. Cambodian culture and British culture are in some ways completely different. These differences are amplified during difficult situations. Furthermore, when you are stressed, it is very difficult to shut off your ingrained cultural way of thinking. One of the reason cultures exist is to help us navigate situations and provide frameworks to process unfamiliar scenarios. When the way you are processing a stressful, unfamiliar situation is the complete opposite of the way those around you are doing it, it gets ugly. You also get ugly.

British values involve structure and rules. Rules and structure are there to make sure everyone knows what is happening, there is little room for ambiguity and we see rules as things that keep us safe and secure. If we don’t fully the rules, people get hurt. So, when I was told I could not meet anyone, I didn’t. I followed the rules and spent most my days in a small, windowless bedroom.

In Cambodia, security is found in social networks and family ties. Let’s say that this resulted in different approaches to the lockdowns. I was living with Cambodians at the time, so the difference was a daily reality. The family was mingling with neighbours, family members were dropping by (they do just live just around the corner). People were still playing volleyball together. The interactions were only happening within a network of their community so was somewhat limited. But, unfortunately, each person in your network has their own network. And those networks link to other networks, and so on. So it seemed to defy the whole point of a lockdown and more over, make sure that any spread was concentrated upon those that are closest to you.

Not only did this flexible attitude towards the lockdown rules frustrate me, it also left me feeling deeply uneasy and unsettled. Rules provide safety in my British thinking. The rules were being broken, thus it was unsafe. Furthermore, it really highlighted my foreigner status in Cambodia. I was obviously very different, not just in the way I looked but in how I thought and lived, and I’m not going to lie, it made me pretty sad and sometimes angry. It emphasised my rootlessness. I am no longer rooted in the U.K. The roots in Cambodia are only borrowed. I have no place to call my own. Those that can understand my birth culture were miles away and dealing with their own lockdown. But they would not be able to understand the conflict and frustrations of my situation. Those in Cambodia could not understand how the lockdown had left me alienated and alone. I did feel quite severed from the world and the relationships with those both far and away. The resulting frustration and anger bubbled up into a text-based argument with Vitou. I will be honest: I was not nice. He did not deserve to become the scapegoat for how I felt, but he did. We quickly made up but I still recognise how badly I dealt with what I was feeling and I was surprised about how much judgemental, self-righteous, cruel and bitter nastiness bubbled up and out from inside me. It definitely left me very humbled.

Also, during this, we were trying to arrange a wedding in Cambodia. All our plans had to come to a halt and the processes we had tried to start needed to wait, or started again. Planning this wedding was particularly hard because, as far as we know, no one had tried to plan an online wedding in Cambodia between two foreigners during a pandemic before. We, therefore, learnt some interesting facts:

  • You can only get married in Cambodia if at least one of the partners is Cambodian (we learnt this when we were already pretty far into the process).
  • Unless you are a homosexual couple, then your embassy may be able to provide the service (but again, this may only extend to couples where one partner is Cambodian).
  • It is illegal to get married in Cambodia if you are impotent (except possibly at your embassy as long as you are homosexual).
  • Two foreigners can get married in other countries, such as Thailand, China and Indonesia.
  • You can get married online in Utah, and you don’t even have to be a Mormon.
  • This online marriage service is very popular with Israelis.

Of course, one of the hardest things was trying to arrange a wedding with no family members. It was particularly hard for Kristi, as the bride’s family is often a lot more involved. Kristi didn’t have her mom to go dress shopping with (Dawne stepped into this role). Also, Kristi’s dad couldn’t walk her down the aisle. This caused a few tears.

Communicating with friends and family was hard to do. There were are few frustrations that they didn’t feel like they knew what was going on. The problem was, no one did. But when you don’t know what is happening, it’s easy to feel like you’re being left out in the dark. This meant that I had to be really clear about communications and trying to make sure everyone felt included.

Communication back home was a theme that continued into the second half of 2021. In part, it was because of the intensity of the June/July wedding communications. There was quite a lot going on and a lot of communication happening. But in August, I think I was a bit exhausted with all the communication I had done. It also seemed that after the wedding was finished, a lot of communication was met with a wall of silence. This first produced some anxiety that I had offended people or let them down in someway, so they were not communicating back. It also produced quite a bit of heartache. Despite evidence to the contrary, it became hard to shake the feeling that no one from the U.K. cared about me. I had to come off social media and actually stop communicating with those back at home for a while, because I had quite a few sleepless nights as a result of these feelings.

Other challenges include

  • cockroaches and rats
  • ill health and injuries

Growth

This is more about personal growth, but being married to a woman from the hospitality state, has meant I’ve grown in girth somewhat.

I’ve set myself personal challenges, some of which I did really well with, some of which didn’t really happen. I set myself a challenge to get up early everyday for a month and that mostly happened. Then, the next month was a challenge pray everyday for Cambodia. That was actually a real gift and I loved doing it.

I’ve grown spiritually, with a deeper understanding of God’s everyday presence in my life. I recognise that more and more as the year unfolds. I always cognitively knew about the benefits of prayer and Bible reading, but it’s becoming more of a lived experience in my life. My theology has definitely deepened as a result.

Also, continuing in my masters degree has definitely deepened my understanding of the gospel and mission. Furthermore, with the impending role of branch leader, I’ve been developing and reflecting on leadership and what it means.

I’ve learnt a lot about myself, and actually Myers-Briggs has been quite helpful in that. I usually buck against personality type things and take them tongue-in-cheek. (Kristi is a fan of enneagram so I will often talk about her being a typical 9 for very arbitrary reasons to wind her up.)

There are various books that have been real eye-openers to me. These are all available on Kindle (at least if you live in the UK).

  • Marginality: The Key to Multicultural Theology by Jung Young Lee
  • Live No Lies by John Mark Comer
  • The Way of the Shepherd by Dr Kevin Leman and Bill Pentak

Into 2022

2022 sounds weird doesn’t it? There’s going to be even further changes at the beginning of the year. Two of the major things are my MA and my job. I’ll be doing various MA modules (with a lot of essays due, all amounting to about 18,000 words) as well as starting my dissertation. The research for this dissertation will happen in Khmer, which is somewhat daunting. However, I imagine my language skills will grow massively during that time. I don’t have to hand it in until 2023, though. Also, I’ve coerced Vitou to help me.

Becoming branch leader will be quite a time consuming job, especially as it is in addition to my roles as New Members Supervisor and Language Learning Supervisor.

I definitely know next year will be another year of massive personal growth. I’ve been growing in setting boundaries, and I will probably have to continue in this manner. But for now, before I get into 2022, it might do me good to have a bit of a rest.

12 Questions

I’ve sort of started a new Bible study system, and it involves 12 questions. I will read a passage (generally a chapter of the Bible – at the moment Matthew). There are three aspects to the questions. The first is general questions about the passage and applying it to myself and personal circumstances. This I feel is something Khmer people do really well, whereas I (and perhaps other Westerners) leave it a bit more general and abstract. I’ve been in Bible studies here where they relate stories to very specific scenarios (‘Oh, when I go to the market I can apply this…’) or are asked directly about what situations in their lives they can apply it to. I’m still practicing this one.

The second and third sets are more focused on particular aspects that are going on in my life. I’m a missionary, so the second set is about missions. I’m taking on a leadership role, so the final set is about that. If you wanted to adapt this you could swap in your own categories (study, work, family, relationships, etc.).

These have been quite interesting. First thing I have learnt is actually how important the Old Testament is to the revelation of God and his plan for salvation. Like I said, this is from reading the gospels. The amount of times Old Testament scripture is used, alluded to or simply quoted by Jesus is actually staggering. While reading Matthew, I think every time I use these questions I am writing “God is revealed / God’s plan for salvation is revealed through the fulfilment of Old Testament scripture.” The leadership lesson I’ve learnt is the Jesus told people about the consequences of not doing what he said. He doesn’t sugarcoat it and he’s happy to point out people’s errors. Jesus’ messages are often clear and doesn’t shy away from the hard stuff. (This is something that I will need to work on.) But he is simultaneously gentle with the weak and downtrodden.

My Bible study tools: my pocket NIV Bible that needs taping back together, a notebook and a uni PIN 0.3 black pen. Oh, and coffee.

General Questions

  • What does this passage reveal about God?
  • What does it reveal about God’s plan for creation and humanity?
  • What does it show about mankind?
  • How does this passage relate to me (and personal circumstances in my life)?
  • Where might I need to repent or change?
  • What help might I need?

Mission

  • How did God reveal himself?
  • How does the passage reveal God’s plan for salvation?
  • How does it relate to the nations?

Leadership

  • How is God’s authority portrayed?
  • Who is being led and by whom?
  • How is this leadership being done?

Questions for you

  • How do you read the Bible?
  • What tools do you use?

2021 in summary

2021 was a pretty crazy year for my wife and I. There were a lot of major milestones. So here is a timeline of how it worked out.

  • January

  • 10th – arrived in Cambodia. Began 2 week quarantine.

    View from my room
  • 24th – left hotel quarantine and was picked up by Vitou. Arrived in Vitou’s new house, ready for a blessing by his church and an impromptu party.

  • 30th – Went to the province to catch fish and duck for Vitou’s house warming party.

  • 31st – Vitou’s housewarming party.

  • February

  • 6th – My birthday

  • 12th – My motorbike got stolen outside a friend’s house. I had to go to the police station (accompanied by three Khmer friends). There were so many mosquitoes there.

  • 18th – Khmer wedding number 10 (I think).

  • 20th – 22nd – my organisation’s prayer retreat in Kampong Thom.

    This is also the weekend that it was announced that COVID-19 was finally moving through the Cambodian population.

  • March

  • 4th – Kristi arrives into Cambodia.

    19th – She is let out of her quarantine very late into the evening.

  • 20th

    Kristi and I got engaged.

    We went to Olive & Olive, a favourite Mediterranean restaurant of ours. I popped the question. She said, “I’d like that very much.”

  • 25th – engagement party, where we only managed to get very bad, hot sweaty photos.

  • April

  • 24th – I baked Kristi some scones, so she could actually experience them.

    Then the first lockdown in Cambodia was announced. It was chaos.

  • May

  • 16th – Kristi’s birthday!

  • 22nd – Went to Silk Island with the staff at LEC

  • 23rd – Kristi and I signed the rental agreement for our first marital home.

  • June

  • 6th – Vitou and Sophy’s anniversary party.

  • July

  • 10th

    Got married online (our first wedding!)

  • 24th

    Had our wedding ceremony (streamed on Zoom)

    Thanks so much to Dawne and Taara for the beautiful flower arrangements!

    Yes, it was just 4 months after we got engaged! No wonder we were so tired afterwards.

  • 26th-29th

    Honeymoon in Kratie

    Where we went on a boat trip and saw Mekong dolphins.

  • Had a celebration meal provided by Kristi’s organisation.

  • August

  • Started new roles as New Member Supervisor and Language Learning Supervisor

  • Enjoyed setting up our new home together.

  • We completed a ‘Cambodia Week Challenge’. We had only use Cambodian markets, shops and cafes. It actually really helped us grow in confidence in doing things the Khmer way (without Cambodians holding our hands) and using our language skills.

  • September

  • 4th – We had a little staycation in Phnom Penh… mainly because we both wanted a hot bath. The hotels here are cheap and nice!

  • Started 2nd year of my masters degree in Missiology.

  • 18th – We had the staff from LEC (our Khmer school) over for dinner.

  • 28th – Kristi fell off her motorbike and cut her left leg badly. Fortunately, there were no broken bones.

  • October

  • I got elected as future leader of the Cambodia branch in my organisation.

  • 30th – We took Vitou’s children to the Phnom Penh Safari Zoo. I didn’t get a photo, but we did see a keeper in the tiger pen. He was stood there next to one of the tigers… in the pen. I often think about it.

  • November

  • 19-20th – Went to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Sanloem with Vitou and his family.

  • 24th-28th – Went to Siem Reap, this time for work.

  • December

  • 12th – Had some friends, including teachers from LEC, over for a Christmas party.

    Dishes included turkey, sausage meat stuffing (dressing in the US), roast potatoes, mac and cheese, shrimp, bread sauce, dinner rolls, and pigs in blankets.
  • Christmas Day – we had Vitou and his family over for Christmas dinner. It was almost a repeat of the above (we had hoped to have ham). Vitou’s daughter was so excited and she just loved the ornaments on the Christmas tree.

    This was about the three hundredth photo the children had to take with our Christmas tree. Hence the done facial expressions.

Looking back, it really has been an amazing year. Of course there were some difficulties and low points, but overall we’ve had some pretty amazing experiences. I know that many people have had a difficult 2021; COVID-19 is still making many people’s lives miserable.

I will hopefully write a post that is more of a reflection on 2021, which will perhaps include more of the emotional rollercoaster that we experienced during this time. However, I will give a teaser and just sum up the things I am most thankful for. First, it is Cambodia. I just love living in this country and it is a blessing to be here. Second, and perhaps more importantly, it is the people. Friends and family, both in Cambodia and other countries, contributed massively to the joy that 2021 has been. So, if you’re reading this because you know me, that probably includes you too! So, thank you.

Other reads

Island adventure

Koh Rong (without the rain)

Day One

Cambodia is a beautiful country. There are so many parts of it that are spectacular. Whether it is the rice fields that stretch from horizon to horizon in the centre of the country, the remote hills of Mondulkiri, the sudden mountains of Kirirom, or the lazy riverside towns of Kratie or Kampot, there are stunning places to see. I have a target to see as much of it as I can.

Last month was both Water Festival and Vitou’s birthday. So, we decided that to celebrate and to just relax after what has been a crazy year we would go to Koh Rong and Koh Rong Samloem (/kɑh roŋ sɑnlɨm/ for you phonetics freaks out there). Whilst on the island was a relaxing experience, getting there was a bit of a fun experience (translation: if you are a control freak you would have hated it).

We hired a car to take us to Sihanoukville, which is a city on the coast. It left my house out about 8:30 am. We got out of Phnom Penh at about 10:30. What should have been about a 20 minute drive was two hours. There were heavy rains the night before and on of the four lane roads out of the city had been flooded and reduced to a single lane. We were stuck in traffic and even before we had left the city I was worried about whether we would manage to arrive in time to catch the ferry.

Waiting in Phnom Penh and the snacks are already out.

The first half of the journey to Sihanoukville is not particularly scenic. You’re in the Phnom Penh suburbs and even up until an hour or two out of the city, the road is lined by factories or dusty provincial town markets. (Once you manage to leave the national road – just by a few minutes, the scenery is beautiful, but you just can’t see it.) However, the towns lining the national road start to melt away and you get glimpses of mountains, rice fields and pagodas. They flash by in emerald green beauty. The jagged sharp mountains seem like broken flint edges. Then you enter Kirirom National Park. You begin to wind around the hills, with sharp drops and green jungle. There’s one particularly beautiful shrine that we passed. But we could not stop… except for lunch.

In Cambodia, time and plans are flexible. Even if we were concerned we were going to miss the ferry, we still had to stop for lunch. (It was probably a wise decision.) So, my anxiety was increasing. However, I reminded myself, I was in Cambodia where plans are flexible and things tend to work out. I was also with Vitou and his family, and that always gives me a sense of reassurance. I think it was mainly the pressure of just making sure it was a great experience for them.

We finally arrived in Sihanoukville. It was like entering a different country. Sihanoukville has experienced a lot of development over recent years, mainly with Chinese money. The constant Chinese writing was one factor to making it feel so different (I can’t complain – everything in Phnom Penh is in English). However, it was mainly the wide, new roads weaving over hills towards the sea. A lot of the development has been met with complaints, especially by foreigners. (And it has caused problems for locals which concerns me more than a slightly bizarre outworking of a desire for colonial control and a condescending idea that only the West should be developing. But that is another blog post.) I was actually really impressed with the city, and hopeful in a few more years when all the skeletons of half-finished high rise complexes are finally finished, it will actually be a beautiful place to visit.

We found our way to the ferry terminal. We hadn’t booked our tickets, which was good because the journey took three hours longer than I expected. We asked if we could buy a ticket. Everyone told us the ferries were full. Again, we needed to show some flexibility. There was the possibility of hiring fishing vessels. They were for eight people and cost only a fraction more it would have done to buy tickets for all of us for the ferry. So we decided we’d do it. Now, there was a poor young Khmer lady who had the same problem we had; she had been stuck in the traffic in Phnom Penh so arrived too late to secure a ticket for the last ferries of the day. The man at the checkout asked if we were happy to have her on our boat and as it wouldn’t cost her any more, we agreed.

A few phone calls later and a tuk tuk arrived to show us the way to where the fishing boat was parked. Vitou jumped in there and the young lady we picked up jumped into our car. We set off, when suddenly the tuk tuk pulled to the side on the edge of a roundabout. In the car, we had no idea what was happening. But suddenly the tuk tuk set off, the car driver following and we turned around and headed back to the ferry terminal. We were pretty confused until the heavens opened and it started pouring down. The fishing boats were quite small and it would have been too choppy to get us comfortably across.

We were hurried through the ferry terminal, through the crowds (with the random Khmer lady still with us). The staff at the terminal bundled us onto… a ferry. So, the ferries where all the tickets were booked apparently had seats to spare. (I think in these cases, companies end up sharing boats with rival companies and perhaps putting on extra services.) In the two minutes maximum we were outside in the rain, we all got absolutely soaked. Despite the rain, the ride to the islands was surprisingly smooth.

Unfortunately, by the time we got there it was dark, so we didn’t really get to experience how beautiful it was straight away. We found our way to our hotel, then found an Italian restaurant to eat in. Poor Veya (Vitou’s daughter) was a bit grumpy (as we all were) at this stage. But once she got a chocolate milkshake inside her, she was the happiest I’ve seen her in a long time. It did look pretty good. And if the standard of my pizza and the other food was anything to go by, it was probably as tasty as it looked.

We had a little walk around the village and bought some seafood for Vitou to snack on later. Then we settled in our bungalows for the night.

Day 2

Vitou and the children paddling in the sea.

We got up and walked the seafront of Koh Rong village and played in the sea a little bit. We also began our search for breakfast. Of course, we ended up going to one of the first places we passed, but still insisted on searching for other places. We had Khmer breakfast of kuy teav (noodle soup) and some really strong coffee.

One of the jetties at Koh Rong, with Koh Rong Samloem in the background.

After this we found ourselves a boat to Koh Rong Samloem, where we would spend the next two nights. This did take a bit of asking around, but of course, I had Vitou to make the task easier. We took a fishing boat to the Island.

We arrived and the family were teasing me about a habit I’ve obviously picked up from my dad. If I have somewhere to go (such as the hotel), I tend to march rather than walk casually. I probably need to learn the art of walking slower, as it’s probably one of the reasons I’m always so hot. So, we marched towards our hotel, which was right on the beach. We checked in, had lunch and had a rest.

I think the first day at Koh Rong Samloem was pretty much spent playing in the sea or napping. It was good to get a rest especially after the somewhat crazy day we had before.

One of the sad aspects of the journey, which was even more evident on Koh Rong Samloem, was the effect COVID-19 had had on the tourist industry in the area. Quite a lot of the hostels, hotels and bars that lined the beaches were closed. In front of those closed hostels, there were sometimes piles of trash that had been washed ashore as there wasn’t the staff to keep the area clean anymore. I didn’t really know the difference, but Kristi had been here pre-COVID and said the difference was actually quite dramatic.

Day Three

Vitou and I took an early morning stroll together and just chatted about life. It was a really nice opportunity to just catch up and to spend a bit of time together. He also suggested that we pray together and for each other as we walked back to the hotel.

One of the things Vitou was really looking forward to was going on a fishing trip. Vitou loves fishing. However, his fishing endeavours are sometimes unsuccessful. Spoiler alert: this was one of those occasions. I don’t know whether it was the weather conditions or the season, but apparently the underwater currents were particularly strong that day. It mean that often our lines were being dragged off who knows where and they got tangled quite regularly. We managed to catch two very small fish.

The boys were also particularly disappointed. We had said they could go snorkelling, but because the currents were too strong and they’re not particularly good swimmers, we decided against it. Kristi was also very seasick and had left her medication in the hotel room by accident.

So, overall, not a particularly successful trip. I think in hindsight, I would ask the boat driver just to take us a bit around the islands. We got to see some of them, but not a huge amount.

One thing I have learnt about Vitou over the years is that he is a person of habit. If he knows something and likes it, his preference is to do it again. (I don’t know whether that is a Cambodian cultural streak. I might ask a few Khmer friends if they prefer trying new places or going to places they know.) Also, as I mentioned before, not all the places were open due to the impact of COVID, so the choice was somewhat limited too. So we ate at our hotel for the second night running. That’s also because they served Vitou’s favourite food: BBQ seafood.

Day Four

This was our day to go back home. We booked the ticket for our ferry and told our driver to pick us up at Sihanoukville at 1pm. We actually arrived there at 3pm, but that’s Cambodia time for you. Of course, as we were crossing the water, the heavens opened and it started pelting it down with rain.

Our journey back to Phnom Penh was not as long as the journey on day one. There was one lesson I needed to learn. First, is to make my requests very specific and very explicit. I often will frame it in a British way, leaving room for ambiguity. I wanted to stop at a particular beauty spot, so I suggested we stopped nearby there to get food (there were restaurants there) and so we could enjoy the view. We ended up stopping 2km further down the road and opposite a petrol station. So much for enjoying the beauty spot. (I’m also going to be honest and say that my mood was not great at this point. I was also experiencing tooth-pain, which didn’t help. However, once I had some food and drink, my mood massively improved. I’m basically a giant toddler.)

We finally arrived back home at around nine in the evening. It was a great trip and I loved spending time with my family. I also need to be aware of my temperament and how I get hangry. There were also parts of Cambodia that I saw briefly and would really like to explore more fully. It’s such a beautiful country and the people are so friendly. I’m so lucky to live here and enjoy it.

Brother from another motherland

Today is Vitou’s birthday! Our friendship goes back for more than five years and has been a really important and central part to my time here in Cambodia. He is a pretty amazing guy, so I thought I would give you a picture of how great he is and tell some of the stories of our friendship.

We first met outside a cafe called Jars of Clay, in the south of the city. That particular restaurant isn’t there due to COVID (but they have another site which is still running). He was a tuk tuk driver there. What I am going to say I mean literally: he was a godsend. If it wasn’t for Vitou, I think my arrival in Cambodia would have been extremely difficult. However, whenever I needed to find somewhere or something, I would ask Vitou. Two examples of how it would have been if I hadn’t found Vitou were etched on my mind.

The first is the attempt to find the office of the organisation where I work. The office was, at that point, down some back alley in a confusing part of the city. I had a pin of the office’s location; however, the Google maps for Phnom Penh at that point was not particularly accurate (it has improved a little). It did not reflect the layout of the smaller side streets where the office was. However, I did not know this. So I tried to go there for a lunch that had been organised for a member of staff. It was close to where I was so I decided I could walk. It was in the middle of the day so that was a really stupid idea in the first place. But when it became apparent that I would not find the office and I could not find any shade in the midday sun, I realised the stupidity of the plan. My hands were so sweaty, I could no longer use my phone as I was just smearing the screen and my taps were not being registered. I had to flag a tuk tuk driver down to take me home before I passed out. After that, I had Vitou take me to the office. He phoned up the Khmer admin assistant that worked there, got the directions and we found it. (It was also reassuring that even after this, he still found it difficult to find it the first time and had to make a number of calls.) Every time I needed to go to the office, I would have to ask Vitou. To this day, I could still not tell you where it was, despite having been there a number of times.

Every year around September or October there is a festival called Pchum Ben, and during this time, Phnom Penh empties. Everyone goes to visit family in the provinces. This included Vitou. He was away for about three days, and during that time my life was so much harder. I was taken to the wrong locations at least twice, once to the complete opposite side of the city: I wanted to go to the south-west of the city and I was taken to the north-east of the city. Without Vitou, I imagine my first few months in Cambodia could have been a bit like that. Tuk tuk drivers in Phnom Penh were very geared to take foreigners to tourist places, but sometimes struggled with helping foreigners with normal day-to-day living. Vitou’s English is very good (despite what he says to the contrary) and any task was made 100 times easier with him around.

He was also really protective of me during those first few months. He made sure I was okay in most situations. In Khmer culture, you call your friends older brother/younger brother depending on their age. Although I’m 9 months older than Vitou, I still call him older brother because of the way he looked after me during that time. One funny aspect of our relationship that has changed is that he refused to take me to places where Khmer people would normally eat. He was worried I’d fall ill. So, whenever I asked to go somewhere Cambodian, he would just stop outside a restaurant for foreigners and suggest I eat there. Some of my best memories during my first few months involve Vitou (including the incident where I nearly got a Cambodian girlfriend).

I moved to Siem Reap, but we still managed to maintain our friendship. This included going to his sister’s wedding in the province, which was a massive cultural experience. (It also included the bathroom incident in Savanna Mall). One of my favourite memories of the wedding was how Vitou’s two boys decided they liked me. They couldn’t speak any English then and I could barely speak Khmer. The way we communicated was the fist bump from Big Hero 6: they’d come up to me, give me a fist bump and I would do the “Balalalala” and they’d fall into hysterics.

Dressed up for a wedding.

Whenever I had to go to Phnom Penh during that time, he would be the first to know. He would pick me up and drop me off at the bus terminal, take me to where I needed to be and look after me. I even stayed at his family’s house a few times whilst I was here.

When my parents came to visit me in 2017, Vitou was the one that took us around. There was a few days when they were in Phnom Penh on their own and Vitou was their guide. He even introduced them to my aforementioned Cambodian not-girlfriend.

Vitou looking cool at Angkor Wat

During April is Khmer New Year. Vitou came to Siem Reap and stayed with me. We saw the temples at sunrise and enjoyed the festivities in Siem Reap together. It was really great having him with me. He said he was really scared to come to a city he didn’t know, but after a few days, he knew his way around it better than I did. (Vitou has an extremely good memory for places and routes and numbers, which is a very good thing for a tuk tuk driver.)

When I left Cambodia in 2017, not sure if or when I would be coming back, saying goodbye to Vitou was really hard. He gave me a photo of us at Angkor Wat to take home. (Funnily enough, a few years later a Chinese student that was staying at my parents’ house for Christmas asked if that was a photo of me and my twin.)

But I did return! I was really excited to see Vitou and his family again. I can remember arriving back in Phnom Penh and feeling like I was returning home. However, I quickly became frustrated. Previously, all my experience of Phnom Penh had been in the south: all the places I knew, all the memories were a 30-45 minute drive away. I felt like I was starting again in some ways. Little did I know that Vitou, his family and all his in-laws lived within a 10 minute drive of where I was living. Furthermore, his church (where his brother-in-law is the pastor) was 3 minutes down the road.

This also meant that when his baby girl was born, I met her the very next day! So, over the last few years, I’ve been able to see her grow up.

I asked Vitou to give me some Khmer lessons and other days I gave him English lessons. With going to the same church, I probably saw him 4 days a week. Of course, when I had to be somewhere, he was the man I asked. He also installed my washing machine and helped me move any furniture and just generally looked after me. I remember him turning up to my door at 6:30 am to give me a birthday cake. We also went to Mondulkiri on holiday together, and this was one of my favourite holiday experiences ever. It was just easy and relaxing.

Vitou’s housing situation was getting a little bit crowded. In one house there were seven adults and five children, including two children under two. I could tell this situation was a bit difficult for everyone, which is understandable. So, I suggested the idea that we move in together. I would rent a whole house (which was relatively cheap), and Vitou and his family would provide me with free language and culture lessons and meals in return. It was also really helpful for my relationship with Kristi. In Khmer culture it would have been very inappropriate to invite Kristi over when I lived alone. However, living with a family provided an excuse. It was also great because Kristi got to experience the joy and blessing of knowing Vitou’s family like I did. (In fact, before Kristi knew them she thought I was a little too over-the-top in how I expressed how great they were. Once she got to know them, she realised I had actually be rather reserved about it.)

I loved living in that house with them. I loved seeing the children each day, and spending time with the family in the evenings, eating meals together. I learnt so much about Cambodian culture and about myself. That time also confirmed how generous, patient, kind, forgiving, caring and accepting Vitou and his family are. Anything that needed doing, any help I needed, Vitou was there for me. Bed bugs, illnesses, the death of my granddad, Vitou always was at my side. When it was my granddad’s funeral, which I had to watch online, Vitou stayed up and watched it with me so I wouldn’t feel alone. He always went out of his way to make sure that everything was good for me.

I previously had a suspicion that Vitou actually has superpowers but one incident confirmed it for me. Our house had a rat problem (as does a lot of houses here in Phnom Penh). I spotted one in the kitchen one evening. Vitou grabbed an oven glove, crouched by the fridge and waited. When the rat ran out, he grabbed it and knocked it against the wall. I did have to point out it wasn’t dead yet, so he just gave it another quick bash and the job was done. It was probably (compared to other methods I’ve used) a very humane way to dispatch of it. The fact that he did it with nothing but an oven glove amazed me.

One benefit of me paying the rent was that Vitou was able to start putting money towards building his own house. An unexpected consequence of COVID-19 was that a lot of builders were struggling for work, so he was able to start on it and finish it a lot sooner than we expected. My original plan was that he would get his house and I would find somewhere else to live. That was until he announced to me one day, “I have decided that you live with us.” So that was that.

I went to the UK for four months and we spoke most weeks. When I came back, I moved into Vitou’s new house. I love Vitou’s house and his family has that innate ability of making anyone that comes feel comfortable and welcome. We even had a few parties there (COVID-19 permitting) and inviting people to the house was easy.

Then, something crazy happened: I got engaged and then married within the space of about 5 months. This meant that I had to find a new house and prepare for the wedding. Who, of course, did I call on to help? My Cambodian brother, Vitou. We spent quite a bit of time searching for a new house. With Vitou’s help, we found the perfect house for us (with air con and washing machine to boot). Every time I needed to buy some new things for the house, Vitou was there helping us barter prices, or agree arrangements or stick it on the top of his tuk tuk (or in the back of his brother-in-law’s truck).

My wedding suit, our three-piece living room suit, our crockery cabinet, the crockery, all came about with Vitou’s help.

The online wedding (with 3 guests!) The actual main ceremony was 2 weeks later.

Of course, when it came to asking someone to be my best man at my wedding, who was I going to ask? Vitou! However, disaster struck. Sadly, Vitou came into contact with someone with COVID-19. He had to self isolate. It was a big disappointment for us both. Fortunately, he was able to isolate away from his family, so they all made it to the wedding.

Now, and throughout my time here in Cambodia, Vitou has been a source of encouragement, wisdom and advice. He has gently guided me through Khmer culture and introduced me to different parts of the country, events and celebrations. He’s allowed me to sit back and observe or participate as much as I wanted. He’s been patient when my British culture manifested at inappropriate moments and gently answered questions or corrected my misunderstanding. I’m very fortunate to have found a brother like Vitou here in Cambodia. So, have a very happy birthday.